Money and politics

Corporations buy influence using big donations and sneaky tactics

The upcoming election hasn't generated much voter interest, with only a couple of measures that seem likely to have an impact. But corporate interests in San Francisco and beyond are still spending big money — in ways that are secretive, suspicious, and sometimes contradictory — to influence the election and win the gratitude of elected officials.

Although the final preelection campaign statements were due Oct. 25, the money continues to roll in. And perhaps most ominously, many campaign committees are spending far more than they are taking in, effectively using this accrued debt to hide contributors until after the election.

And almost invariably, the person at the center of such schemes — who facilitates the most creative and unsettling spending by downtown political interests — is notorious campaign finance attorney Jim Sutton, who also serves as Mayor Gavin Newsom's treasurer (and didn't return our calls for comment by press time).

Political donations are supposed to be transparent and reflect popular support for some campaign. But once again, this election is showing the disproportionate influence that corporations have on local politics and the difficulties faced in trying to accurately trace that influence.

There are "No on K" billboards all over San Francisco, showing a giant image of a man's empty pocket alongside the dubious claim that "Proposition K will cut $20 million from Muni." The signs were created and funded by Clear Channel Outdoor.

Prop. K is an advisory measure that the Board of Supervisors placed on the ballot this fall to ask whether voters want to restrict advertising on public spaces like bus stops. But it was aimed at Clear Channel Outdoor's contract to maintain 1,100 city bus shelters and sell advertising on them, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 23. In exchange, the CCO agreed to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $5 million annually, plus 45 percent of its annual revenues from shelter ad revenues.

Nonetheless, the measure would put city voters on record as opposing the CCO's basic business model, so the company fought back. The "No on K — Citizens to Protect Muni Services" filing suggests that there is no citizen involvement in the No on K campaign. So far, No on K has only received donations from Clear Channel Outdoor, including $120,000 in cash and $55,750 in in-kind contributions of radio time and ad space.

Maybe Clear Channel really is trying to help Muni get more money, rather than pad its own profits. After all, its parent corporation, Clear Channel International, donated $20,000 to support Muni reform measure Proposition A — authored by Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin — on Oct. 15, just days before Clear Channel Outdoor won its big bus transit deal with the city.

Yet following the corporate money even further makes it clear that altruism isn't what motivates corporate spending. No on K also benefited from independent expenditures by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce 21st Century Committee, a general-purpose committee created in 1999, which received major funding this year from the Gap ($10,000), Pacific Gas and Electric Co. ($7,500), Bechtel ($5,000), Catholic Healthcare West ($5,000), and Clear Channel Outdoor ($1,000).

The 21st Century Committee also spent $716 for newspaper ads opposing Prop. A, which would net the MTA at least $26 million per year from the city's General Fund. Sutton — a former chair of the California Republican Party — and his associates effectively control the 21st Century Committee, which is also helping Newsom, his top client, avoid facing the Board of Supervisors in public.